Saturday, September 27, 2014

A rook is not a castle. That is true. It is also true what it says in this story about the number of possible configurations of a chess board, but that does not become important until the end. (Short Stories With Long Titles)

As with all my longer short stories, this is available as a free download to read offline. Click here to get the hard copy of this story.  I posted this once before on this blog, but that was nearly two years ago, so here it is again.

There is nothing more shameful than being taken off the board as a result of a mistake.

No matter how many times Rook tried to tell himself that it wasn't even his fault, that the other pieces were being mean, that he couldn't help it who got to play his side and that anyway, they didn't know the strategy so how did they know if he was sacrificed or outsmarted or merely a dumb move, no matter all those things, Rook stood off to the side of the board, lonesome, humiliated, and wondering why, at the least, Queen's Rook wouldn't side with him?

The worst was the time that he'd been the first piece taken, some sort of weird opening that had left him hopeful,  Rook was, that this time the Person who'd chosen to play his side knew what he was doing, was going to play with skill and style, use some maneuvers that would leave Rook on the board long into the game, staring down White Knight and weaving amongst pawns, getting closer to check and then checkmate, maybe: the piece that clinched it, that moving into position would tell the other side, White, that they were done and it was over, so over.

That was the dream.

But it had not worked out that way.  His Pawn had been moved out first, clearing the way.  Then Rook, leaping forward two spots, stopping, waiting his turn.   He'd felt breathless with anticipation, the leader, the one who was opening the attack, and what an attack, starting with Rook!

His Pawn had ignored him, of course, but Rook had been hopeful that would change, that after this, after...

... look, there are 1,327 standard openings in chess.  Some portion of those would have to happen with the Rook involved early on,  right? Even being first?

...after this, Rook felt, he would maybe be part of the crowd, maybe invited into the talks when they sat in the box night after night after night, awaiting a cold snowy night when there was nothing good on TV, or when they were found by kids bored at a dinner party, or perhaps brought along on a car trip to someone else's house to play.  Whatever, there were long days and nights when Rook would lay, and sigh, and wish he had someone to talk to, someone to compare games and moves with and talk about what might have been.

"I knew he wouldn't see you," Black Queen's Bishop would say to White King's Knight, off on the side of the box.  "I knew it. I could just feel it was over for me.  And yet, I was so close! Two checks..." and White King's Knight would chuckle and the two would talk about how they'd been worried, set so close to the fireplace, that their varnish might catch.

Rook wouldn't speak to them, because he knew he wasn't invited to do so.

When he was taken, even the People playing seemed to sense he was not part of the crowd, and he would be removed from the board and not jumbled in with other pieces, crowded around the edge watching who would prevail

(although no Person likely kept track, in this box, it was White 72, Black 65, a source of pride for White)

and wondering who would be next to lose, which gambit was being pursued, whether the Pawns were being properly utilized (they never were, really) and so on.

Rook would stand off to the edge, having been placed outside the group where he belonged but longed not to be.

... that one time, though, he'd slid away from his Pawn, to the center of the board, right in front of his Queen, across from White King, whose own Pawn had moved out already, and Rook had on his next turn swept up to stand directly in front of White King's Pawn and had almost quivered with anticipation, the entire Board held in thrall to him, to this daring bold opening that had him eye-to-eye, almost, with White King, who affected an air of nonchalance but nobody, nobody, really knew what was going on and so it was quite exciting and Rook felt this was it, he was on the edge, he was going to break on through and then Black Queen's Bishop had been slid onto his spot.

Black Queen's Bishop had been slid onto his spot.

Black Queen's Bishop had been slid onto his spot.

He'd been taken off the board, set over not even on the table over on the floor next to the table down by a shoe of the Person playing White and he couldn't even see.  He couldn't even see the strategy,  the next move, the outcome, but somehow, Rook knew:

It wasn't a Grand Design.

It was a mistake.


Rook didn't know it, but he looked like a castle.

And although he didn't know what a castle looked like, he looked like one, and although he didn't know it, despite looking like a castle Rook was actually a chariot,

And thus, Rook could move.


Move Rook did.

Unintentionally, at first.

After all, not all Rook moves are considered Rook moves. Sometimes, Rooks move but it's the King's fault.

Black King knew about Rook and felt bad for Rook and also, Black King was tired of losing, so Black King moved Rook.


Rook awoke in bright sunlight, surrounded by a hazy sweep of dust that swirled up and around, not stirred up by anything more than the heat, the sunlight pouring down lightly but with strength nonetheless, the strength perhaps of a ballerina or a shortstop, strong without seeming to be strong because of the grace and lithe capability they display.

The sunlight, whatever the source of its hidden strength, heated up the dirt and tiny little specks of dust around Rook rose up and swirled higher and higher until they cooled off and dropped back down, and Rook lay on his side and stared at them, entranced. He did not wonder where he was, or worry about whether he should be there.  He did not know what had happened, but he did not fret, either.  Being removed from an unhappy situation can have that effect on some people, and some things: sometimes, living an unhappy life may make one fear that every new situation will be more unhappiness, will be bad because the person, or thing, that has suffered all the bad days behind it has no reason to think the world has anything but more bad, more sad, in store: if every day you woke up and it was raining, would you wake up on the 3,756th day and expect anything but rain?


And if you were the type of person who had lived through 10-plus years of rain and yet awoke each day wondering if there could be something but rain, even though you personally did not know that such a thing existed, if you awoke each day to the dreary gloom of life at one of its worsts and despite that imagined, without knowing how to do so, that there could be a better day even if you couldn't, personally, picture it, if you are one of those type of people -- or things -- then you were like Rook, who had spent his whole life in a box with other chess pieces who would not give him the time of day, who had never been involved in a winning move or helped with a checkmate, who had been on the losing team more often than not and not involved when his side won, and who despite that felt that there was beauty in the world and happiness could await him.  

Rook hadn't known that it awaited him until that moment when he was suddenly lying in the dirt watching the dust granules heat up and cool off, fly up and float down, but when he saw it, he recognized it, and he loved it and thrilled to it.

I'm not off to the side anymore, Rook felt, and he laid there and waited for the next thing he should do.


 Back home, in the box, there were now two Black Kings.

Most of the time,  the Person playing Black just used the extra King as the missing Rook.  Nothing else of any import ever happened in that chess game again and it won't be mentioned after this.


Rook laid there watching the dust and seeing the sun roll lazily across the sky, starting over at this end and then being above him and then being over at that end, and Rook watched the leaves flicker and blow around in the wind and heard nearby traffic and voices and footsteps and sounds that were the sound of basketballs bouncing but he didn't know that, because Rook had never seen a basketball, let alone heard one bounce.

Around about almost evening, a boy came up and was walking along the path and he stopped, his foot near Rook, and then he picked Rook up and looked at him.

Rook looked at the boy, too, who was not realizing that Rook was looking back at him.  Rook wondered what kind of Person this was and figured it might as easily be a nice person as a mean one.

The boy shrugged and dropped Rook back onto the ground and walked on and Rook was about to change his opinion of the boy but then the boy turned around and picked up Rook and Rook ended up in the boy's pocket. rubbing against some change and a few keys and, Rook was pretty sure, a rock.

Rook stayed in the boy's pocket for a long time -- that night, he sat in the pocket and listened while the boy talked at dinner about a game, a basketball game and Rook tried to imagine what basketball could be, and listened to the clink of silverware and the sound of chewing and then the washing of dishes and then finally Rook heard a woman say to the boy that the boy had better go take his bath and get ready for bed and Rook then felt the pants sliding off the boy and he felt the pocket go slack around him.

Rook laid there all night long, in the dark, in the pocket.  He was pretty sure that something really amazing was going to happen to him.


It's not really clear if Rook sleeps or not, it should be pointed out.  He is just a chess piece, after all,  and why would a chess piece, even one with as hopeful an outlook as Rook has thus far demonstrated, need to sleep?

Then again, how else would Rook pass the time in between chess games when he was back home, and how else would Rook have whiled away hours sitting in a pocket of a pair of dirty blue jeans on the floor of a bathroom in a suburb somewhere?

So maybe Rook sleeps, and maybe Rook does not, but it is safe to assume that Rook has some way of spending uneventful hours without getting bored.


Rook felt the pocket lifting, and felt a hand reaching in and grabbing things out, accompanied by a tsking sound that Rook had previously only heard when a bad move was made.  Rook briefly felt the despair he'd used to feel when he was moved into danger that even he could see only to be shortly taken off the board, lost for a Pawn or a Bishop or nothing even, but Rook soldiered on even in the face of that feeling because this was a new place and after all, Rooks were originally not just chariots but chariots that were like roving armored castles filled with men, a terror on the battlefield, and plastic he may be, but Rook is descended from the proud tradition of Rooks and is a warrior born.

A gentle, hopeful warrior is still a warrior after all.

"What is this?" a woman said, and held Rook and the coins and the  keys and a rock -- it was a rock, Rook noted, now able to see it in the light.

The woman dropped the jeans into the hamper and called the boy, who came walking in and looked at the items held out in her hand.

"I dunno," he said.

"Where did you get it?' the woman asked.

Rook wondered which of the items was it.

"I found it," the boy answered.

"Where?" the woman asked.

"I dunno," the boy said.

"Tell me where," the woman said, and sounded as though she might cry.

"I dunno," the boy said, "By the basketball courts?"

"Take me there," the woman said.

Rook expected to be put onto a counter, or perhaps a shelf.  He was surprised that he was continued to be held in the woman's hand as she followed the boy down the stairs and through the kitchen where he recognized some of the smells from dinner last night.  He watched as the woman picked up the car keys off the counter and the boy said 

"What's the big deal?" but the woman didn't answer as she just urged the boy on with her hand on his shoulder, saying again to take her there.

Rook tagged along, of course, in her hand.  


She didn't let go of Rook even when she was down on her hands and knees, scouring around the dirt, rubbing her hands through leaves and twigs and trash and dirt, didn't let go of Rook even when she pulled her cell phone out from her purse and dialed some numbers, spoke into the phone, telling someone somewhere that she'd found something and maybe it was a clue.

Rook wondered what he was a clue, to.


Later that night, the woman sat back at the kitchen table. The smells of food were gone.  The people were all gone, too.  The lights were turned off except for one small light over the stove.  The woman sat at her chair, a cup of coffee near her hand, just off to the side of Rook.  She held her hands in front of her face, palms inward, pressing hard against her eyes even though it didn't seem they could cry anymore.

"Where did you go to?" she asked, and Rook was reasonably sure that she was not talking directly to him.

The woman left him sitting there, in the gloom of the kitchen, next to the cooling cup of coffee, and Rook began to seriously doubt that this was going to lead to something amazing or exciting.  Had the sunlight, the dust, the beautiful day's promise, been misleading? Was it like that long-ago opening?  Doomed to fail miserably?

The woman returned.  She had a box with her, a cardboard box.  Rook watched as the woman opened up the box, unfolded the plastic board, and began setting pieces on the board, lining up the Whites and the Blacks not all one team at a time, but as she reached for them.  She hesitated at times, not sure where to put some pieces and Rook noticed that she had White Queen's Bishop and White King's Bishop reversed but most people wouldn't notice such a thing and the Pieces, wherever they were, were used to such minor problems.

The board was missing a piece.

The woman picked Rook up, held him up, looked at him.

She put him down on the open spot on the board.

Rook looked around at the other Pieces, warily.  None of them said anything.

The woman picked him up again,  looking at him closely.

"It's not..." she said, and put him back down again, but not on the chess board.

Off to the side.

When she went to bed, and the kitchen was dark, Rook felt the expectancy of the other pieces weighing on him.  He felt he should say something.  He felt he should do something.

The silence grew longer and longer and finally, Rook said

"She's rightI'm not..." and he left, this time doing so on his own because Rooks don't always need kings to move, sometimes they just need the other pieces to get out of the way and they can go a long ways entirely of their own volition.


Rook paused on the front porch of the house.

Maybe I am, he thought.

Maybe I am, he thought again.

The moon was bright tonight and Rook took stock of his situation.  

1.  He hadn't known about castling up until now, up until he awoke in that dusty patch.

2.  How had she recognized him?

3.  Had she recognized him?

Rook knew that these were at best a series of disorganized thoughts but felt they were leading him somewhere, and he stood in the moonlight on the front porch of the house, the edge of his base reflecting the tiniest possible sliver of the nearly-full moon that hung in the sky off over the forest in the direction of the shortcut between the neighborhood and the basketball courts.

Maybe I am, he thought again.

Or maybe I could be.

And so he went back.

Maybe, thought Rook, this is what I was supposed to do with my life: serve as a clue, as hope.

Back on the kitchen table, the other Pieces stood, still, of course, and none said anything when he came back.

"Maybe I am," Rook told the other Pieces.

"And maybe I am not," he allowed, after a few minutes.

"But the thing is," Rook went on, when the silence had still not been broken, "The thing is this is how I see it: sometimes you don't know about an opening.  I mean, I have been spending my whole entire existence being broken down again and again.  I'm always the first one off the board, it seems.  I never win.  And even when my team wins, I'm usually off to the side."

Rook stopped talking.

The kitchen sat quiet in the gloom.  The coffee cup was still on the table, but now no heat rose off of its dark surface.
"There was this opening,  once..." Rook began again.


Rook knew the other pieces would never have understood, anyway.  You'd have to have walked in his path, followed his careening across the board into peril, waited patiently in the corner, never moving, until his King was taken.  You'd have to have been sitting at the edge of the board watching others cruise to victory, Bishops and Knights teaming up to corner White King, Black Queen imperiously striding across the board to cries of checkmate, while you sat unnoticed and long-sacrificed, not part of the victory, often blamed for the loss.

Rook knew the other pieces would not have done that, but they'd have to have to understand why he came back.  They'd have to have gone through that to understand why that one opening, once, had held such promise.  They'd have to have warrior's blood coursing through centuries of their existence, the rage of the battlefield storming around them in history, the tumult of war, pounding horses' hooves and clanging swords and thundering petards and whistling arrows, they'd have to have that in their background, too, and have that channeled into a piece that sat on the edge, waiting his turn.

They'd have to have all that, and have all that turn into so much failure and loss and misery and still somehow they'd have to, like Rook, know that some good thing was going to happen, some exciting thing was just around the corner, just ahead the next time the box opened, have to still believe in the possibilities that were good and that those possibilities outnumbered the bad even if all that had ever happened was bad, have to believe that in a world where everything came up tailsheads was still possible...

... to know why Rook came back.


There are more configurations to a chess board than there are atoms in the universe: It would be easier, that is to say,  to count from 1-until-the-end all the atoms in the universe than it would be to repeatedly lay out a chess board into all possible configurations of a match.

With that many possibilities,  who is to say what is or is not to be the next configuration?

And if you have run through all the bad? 

If every possible set-up so far has been bad?

Why,  then, that must mean you are in for a powerful lot of good configurations, right?


Rook did not get put back in the box.

The woman carried him with her.

Rooks do not have a good sense of time. Who knows if they even know about time, at all?  Or what their concept of time might be?  Who knows what a rook thinks?

Rook was optimistic that he was a clue.

He knew about all the configurations, for one thing.  That was in his blood.  His history.

Rook also knew that he, as a piece, was generally underestimated.  He was way off to the side and so most people felt he was not such a powerful piece. 

But Rook knew.

That was why he came back: because people kept underestimating him.


One day, the woman was crying and squeezing Rook and driving and driving and crying and squeezing Rook hard in her hand against the steering wheel of the car and she slammed on the brakes and opened the door and got out and ran and didn't even close the door behind her and then Rook was being squeezed in a fist that was hugging into the back of a little boy who was yelling Mommy.


And when you have run  through all the bad, you are in for a powerful lot of good configurations.

Mr F got a wetsuit.

Because sometimes swimming suits don't stay on as much as we would all like them too, and sometimes people sort of help swimming suits not stay on as much as they are supposed to.

He was not crazy about the idea of a wetsuit at first, as evidenced by his struggles to not try it on the day it arrived in the mail.  We had to mail-order it (a phrase nobody uses anymore: mail-order, even though that's exactly what 'shopping on Amazon' is) because who knows where you could buy a wetsuit in Madison, Wisconsin?  Not me.  That's only one reason it's amazing living in the future as we do: in the past we'd have spent the entire day calling and driving around trying to find some kind of wetsuit company in Chicago and we'd have had to drive there and there probably would've been an earthquake or something, whereas in the present (which is actually the future to those past-selves of ours) we can simply do a quick search and then have it mailed to us a few days later.

Anyway we had Mr F try it on and it took both of us to get him into it, which we had to do because we had to see if it fit before taking it to the pool, and it did.  So yesterday the boys and I went for our Friday walk-and-swim, walking to the pool and then swimming.  I took the wetsuit (which both Mr Bunches and I are kind of jealous of) with us and also his old swimming suit, just in case.

We got to the locker room, and Mr F didn't want to wear the wetsuit. I tried twice encouraging him to get into it using my muscles but he's stronger than the average 8-year-old and so I had to resort to reason, which doesn't often work with Mr F.

"Just try it for a bit in the pool," I told him "And if you don't like it, I'll let you change into your regular swimsuit."

And with that he stopped struggling and let me put it on him and then got in the pool and he loved it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Everything I do today will be big a few years from now. There's no stopping me.

Updates on ME!  

In case you were starting to doubt that I am one of the elemental forces of nature originally laid out by Aristotle as governing the universe (the four are Fire, Water, Me, and "McGriddles"), here is proof that every single thing I do is destined to shape humanity, almost as much as Star Wars does.

First, the other day, the "Car Talk" podcast (I only noticed it because it was advertised on my other podcasts.  I don't listen to it because I don't care about cars.  I don't understand them, I don't want to understand them, I barely pay attention to them even when driving) the Car Talk podcast came out with its title as "A Bad Case Of Witzelsucht." I don't know what they talked about (see previous parentheses) but those of you who used to read my sports blog (P.T. Dilloway) will remember that back in 2010 I published my annual Nongift! Nonguide! for holiday shopping, and titled it "Have A Witzelsucht Holiday Season!"

"Witzelsucht" was back then a brand-new condition, and I had devoted the intro to my annual guide to helping "raise awareness" (i.e. "doing nothing but feeling good about it") via this public service announcement introduction:

The following is a special announcement brought to you by Nonsportsmanlike Conduct:

Do you suffer from the pain of Witzelsucht?

Don't be so quick to answer. You may be a victim of Witzelsucht and not even know it. Take this short quiz to see if you are in need of medical help:


I suffer from Witzelsucht: A. True. B. False.

If you answered a, then you likely suffer from Witzelsucht. If you answered b then you are trying to bluff your way through this quiz without admitting you have a problem. And if you answered I'm okay with them touching my junk then you should fly out of Los Angeles airport, where the TSA screeners are all hunky.

Witzelsucht can strike anybody, anywhere -- and this debilitating condition is growing ever more common. This disease, first defined in 2005, causes its victims to tell "inappropriate or poor jokes." Consider this horrifying story from medical researchers:
A 2005 case study describes a 57-year-old woman who suddenly morphed into a more gregarious version of herself. "She had become the life of the party and would laugh, joke, and sing all the time."
And it doesn't just affect the person with the disease: as is so common today, especially in America, we're all victims:

As [one researcher] explains, the jokiness "can be annoying to family and caregivers, (but) it is usually not a terrible problem."

So now, go back and take that quiz again, and engage in some reflection. Do you tell inappropriate jokes? Do you giggle uncontrollably every time you imagine an egg freaking out because a potato can talk?
A potato and an egg are boiling in water, at some monastery kitchen, when the the potato says "zeeez it sure is hot in here", then the egg says "ahhh this potato can speak".
Have you ever laughed at Family Circus? As you can see, this disease is more wide-spread than you imagined, and unlike malaria, which at least has rich people creating tiny Death Stars to fight it, there is no telethon, there is no charity fundraiser, there is no guest appearance by Leonardo DiCaprio, to help the suffering witzelsuchters.

So as we enter this holiday season, please, be aware of the problem, and listen, at the office parties and family gatherings and lines waiting for mall Santas, and when you hear a bad joke, take a moment to pause and say to yourself "Man, I wish I had the kind of job where I could get paid for coming up with stupid names to describe boorish behavior."

Helping come up with something that some unemployed auto mechanics could plagiarize four years later isn't the only way I 'give back' to society/work off my community service.  I also am sort of a Demigod Of Fashion.

For years now I have worn colorful, some would say "crazy" (air quotes intended) socks.  This began when I decided that I didn't want to match my socks to my outfit anymore because honestly this has to stop somewhere, people.  We need to lighten up.  I was once told that the shade of burgundy (note: not actually a color, the guy meant "purplish-red") of my tie didn't quite match the shade of burgundy (see previous parentheses) of my shirt, and that's when I snapped and decided that I was going to 'take it to the streets' as it were by never ever matching my socks to my outfit again.  

That actually then changed into "I would like funny or unique socks," and so now I have Star Wars socks (of course), taco socks, fox socks (but no sock foxes!)(SOCK FOXES SHOULD BE A THING WHY ISN'T THAT ALREADY?)... focus... and so on.  

I just thought I was being "me" and that this was just something that made my life a bit easier and more fun.  I didn't know that I was practically Ryan Gosling and that the entire world was following my lead... my sexy, fashionable lead, as pointed out by Huffington Post the other day; in an article on how men could be stylish without spending a lot of money, the HuffPo advised people to wear colorful or crazy socks to be stylish and 'drive the ladies crazy'. (That last part was implied.)

So there you have it: whether you want a fancy German word for why you think Garfield is funny or whether you just want an excuse to not sort your sock drawer out, I am here for you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I went back and re-read and old post and now I'm a little sad.

I went back and looked at a post I first wrote on September 22, 2008, six years ago almost to the day, just to see what I'd been up to back then.  This is that post, titled This Wouldn't Have Happened To Me If Men Were Able To Become Pregnant.

This was written before the boys were diagnosed as autistic.  I'm surprised at just how naive I sound about it, given that now, all these years later, I can see the clues all over this post.

I'm not a bad person and I'm not a bad parent. It looks that way sometimes, but really, before you judge me, you should get to know all the facts.

I took the Babies!, Mr F and Mr Bunches, with me to the store on Saturday right after their nap. I did that to give Sweetie a break. Sweetie is a stay-at-home mom, which means she has 168 hours per week in the company of the Babies!, and almost that much in the company of The Boy and Middle. If Oldest were to drop by, Sweetie might need intensive therapy, but Oldest doesn't drop by all that much. In fact, now, she actively resists dropping by, even when there might be something in it for her, like this week when I told her that because we had a little extra money, we were going to give each of the kids $50.

"Do I have to come over to pick it up?" she asked me.

"No," I said. "I'll bring it with me to work." There was a pause, and then Oldest sighed and said:

"Well, okay then."

We had that discussion in the office; Oldest has been helping out around my office a little lately, and she was in the office yesterday. Helping around the office should be something Oldest likes doing; not only does she get paid pretty well for doing it, but she gets paid to spend time working on her own legal problems -- so when her apartment doesn't have hot water, not only does she have access to a lawyer (me!) to get advice from, she then gets to come into our office and use some of her time drafting up a letter to her landlord demanding a break on her rent.   How many people get paid to work on their own problems? Besides me, I mean?

Oldest gets paid to do that, plus when she comes in, I bring her a lunch. True, the lunch I bring her usually has the Reject Snacks for dessert, but that's because someone has to eat the Reject Snacks and I don't actually eat that many snacks, so they're all going to go bad if Oldest doesn't help out by letting me unload some of the Reject Snacks on her.

The Reject Snacks are the snacks and desserts that Sweetie or I bought which will never actually be eaten by Sweetie, Middle, or The Boy. I will eat them, because that is what Dads do. Dads get very little credit simply because we don't have the ability to get pregnant and so we have to spend our whole lives hearing if men could get pregnant you wouldn't say that -- about everything, it seems. No matter what a Dad says, somewhere there is a woman who feels that if men could get pregnant, the Dad would change his story pretty quickly. I like this song, a Dad might say, and some woman somewhere in the world is ready to fire back You wouldn't if men were the ones who got pregnant, that's for sure.

But Dads deserve a little credit, because we're the ones who drop everyone off at the mall door and then go park in the next county and walk in and spend the next hour wandering with the family through stores that don't interest us, and with wet feet, only to at the end of the shopping trip have to go back out into the blizzard and pull the car up to the door again. And we eat the Reject Snacks. One major job for all Dads in life is to eat those things that will otherwise get thrown out, sometimes combined into dishes that are edible only if you're a Dad.

We end up with Reject Snacks in one of three ways: the first way is that the kids go grocery shopping with us when they're hungry, and through the process of wearing us down they eventually get us to buy something we otherwise wouldn't-- and they otherwise wouldn't. Middle uses this tactic a lot. Take her grocery shopping and she begins almost as soon as you walk through the door: can we get this, can we get this, can we get this. The answer is no, no, no, no because Sweetie and I use a grocery shopping list and get only those things that are on the list, or, if I'm the grocery shopper, which cost a buck. Regardless of what it is, if it costs a dollar, I will put it in the cart, because you can't go wrong for a dollar.

Middle keeps up, though, becoming more and more desperate throughout the store, picking up things at random: dishwashing gloves, weird oriental food, a little kid in a cart, asking each time can we get this, until finally I cave in and say "yes," at which point Middle, who is likely holding lingonberry marmalade at that point, realizes her error but doesn't want to back down, and so we go home with lingonberry marmalade that will not get eaten.

We also end up with Reject Snacks when I buy something I think the kids will like, only to learn that either (a) they don't think something is great simply because it cost a dollar, or (b) their tastes have changed and they no longer like it. That latter one happens a lot, because their tastes change by the microsecond. Sometimes, their tastes change mid-chew. They'll put something in their mouth and then decide, just before swallowing, that they no longer like it. I know that I'm not too far from hearing them say When I started swallowing it I liked it but now I don't.

The final way we get Reject Snacks is -- and I'm totally serious about this -- to take them out of the box and put them in a bowl. The kids will not eat anything that they did not get out of a box. Homemade desserts are out entirely; I think they assume that it makes them look poor; we live in a very affluent community where people simply don't home-make desserts. We home-make desserts because I like to cook and Sweetie likes to cook and because we're on the lower 1/2 of that community, but nobody else does and the kids abhor homemade desserts. The closest they'll allow to a homemade dessert is those cookies that come from a tube, which are "home-made" but still look storebought.

I learned about the out-of-the-box rule inadvertently; one day, I was cleaning out the cupboards because I had gone looking for something and realized that we had, by my count, a hundred jillion boxes, each of which had exactly one snack in it. I'm very familiar with that technique: If you don't eat the last snack, you don't have to throw away the box, so nobody ever eats the last snack.

Rather than let that go on, I took a bowl and emptied all of the snacks into it, and threw away the boxes, and put the bowl back into the snack cupboard.

That bowl, which was filled with the same Little Debbies and Twinkies and granola bars and candy that had only moments before been in boxes and had only moments before been beloved by the kids, sat there for months untouched. When we got new groceries, the kids ate those instead of the snacks in the bowl. I slowly realized that they weren't eating the snacks from the bowl because they were in the bowl.

I've tested that theory, because that's what parenting is all about: doing secret psychological experiments on your kids and then blogging about them. I've taken snacks that they love, and opened the box and poured them into the bowl and put the bowl out. The snacks are untouched. They stay untouched forever. The Boy and Middle won't eat a snack that is not in its original box.

I was not, though, performing any kind of psychological experiment when I was wandering around a store with Mr F and Mr Bunches on Saturday night, giving Sweetie a bit of a break. With Middle and The Boy off at their own jobs, and Oldest off somewhere grudgingly accepting money for nothing or whatever it is she does, that left Sweetie and me and the twins around the house, and I could tell Sweetie needed a break through a sixth sense I have for that sort of thing. I picked up on subtle clues that Sweetie was giving me, subtle clues like when she said "I need a break." I'm very good that way.

So I got the twins up promptly at four p.m. to take them somewhere and give them a break. This did not go over real well with Mr F and Mr Bunches, since they hadn't actually fallen asleep in their nap until about 2:30 p.m., but Sweetie and I are adamant these days that the Babies! stay on a schedule. We put them on this schedule the day after they turned two: they get up at 7 a.m. They take a nap from 1-4. And they go to bed at 9 p.m. We had to put them on that schedule because they were killing us. They'd get up at 8:30 or 9 or 10, whenever they felt like it, and then nap from 4 p.m. to 6, and then when we put them to bed at 9, they'd talk and play and jump in their cribs until after midnight.

So now we adhere to the schedule, and if they fall asleep at 3:50 p.m., well, tough: They're still woken up at 4. This makes them, as you might guess, angry. Angry two-year-olds can't tell you they're angry. Mr F and Mr Bunches, between them, have a vocabulary of about 6 words, and that's counting "yah-do" as a word.

I don't worry about their vocabulary, or their talking, even though apparently they're supposed to have a vocabulary of 7-20 words so far, judging by what was asked at their two-year checkup. The nurse said to us at the checkup: "Do they have a vocabulary of 7 to 20 words?" to which Sweetie and I unhesitatingly lied and said Yes because if you say no then your child is in special-ed or on medication or something, and probably taken away from you. So we lied and then justified it by counting things as words that might not really be -- or, in Sweetie's case, counting word groups. Mr Bunches says "No," and "Oh," and sometimes he says "Oh no," which Sweetie counts as a whole separate word.

But I don't worry about their talking, because I can see that they're smart, even if they don't talk much yet -- or talk in a way I can understand. For all I know, they've invented a language that's more sophisticated than English. They could do that, because, like I said, these Babies! are smart. I know they're smart because they outsmart me routinely and because they know when I'm paying attention and when I'm not.

Like last week, when I was "watching" them while doing a little writing. They were running around and playing and the newspaper was on the table. At one point, Mr Bunches grabbed the newspaper, and I looked around when I heard the rustle and saw he was grabbing part of the paper. He looked at me, and I said "Go ahead," because it wasn't a part of the paper I read, and because I like to encourage them to read, or at least to play with the newspaper because when they're playing with the newspaper they're not throwing heavy things at the television.

A few minutes later, I heard more rustling, and paid no attention because I assumed they were getting more of the newspaper. Then there was more rustling, which I continued to ignore.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I finished up what I was doing, and heard some more rustling, and went to see what was going on.

What was going on was that the boys had taken the giant box of Lucky Charms off the table and were dumping that at various spots on the carpeting, and then throwing them and walking through them. The Lucky Charms box, in dumping out, made exactly the same kind of rustling as a newspaper -- try it yourself and see.

Did you know that Lucky Charms' marshmallows stain carpeting when ground in? Pink hearts, yellow moons, blue clovers-- all there on our dining room floor.

Another way I know the Babies! are smart is through what they did Saturday night. They were very very crabby, so I decided the best way to give Sweetie a break was to get the boys out of the house, and I decided to take them to pick up their movie that we were getting Mr Bunches as a reward for using his potty chair. When we began potty-training them, I told them that the first time they used the potty chair successfully, I'd get them a movie.

"Yah-do," they told me, which probably translates as "My feet still have smushed up Lucky Charms marshmallows on them."

Mr Bunches had successfully used the potty chair earlier that day, although he didn't seem to know that he'd done that. He'd sat on the chair for a few minutes, then got very upset because Mr F was, you know, touching the wall, and Mr Bunches had to do that, too, so he got up and ran over there, and after I separated them I noticed that he'd used the chair, and so I cheered him and said "Yay!" and told him I was proud of him, and in response he poked his whole entire hand into my mouth and tried to grab my molars.

Regardless, he was entitled to a movie, so I loaded up him and Mr F in the car after their nap, both of them yelling at me and crying because they didn't want to be awake and they didn't want to get into the car and they certainly didn't want the glass of milk and S'more crackers I'd given them for a snack (they caved on that last one) and we waved good-bye to Sweetie, who looked far more relieved than a mother probably should as we backed out, and I took them to the store -- stopping first at a different store because I wanted to look for hanging lamps to put up downstairs, because our house is gloomy downstairs and needs more than the two lamps we have.

We got to that store, and I loaded the boys into the stroller to take them in. When you've got twins, you have to shop using the double stroller because nobody has double-seat carts to use, and if they do, then you've got two crabby twins sitting next to each other and it's only a matter of time before the shoving match starts. Shopping with the stroller is better, because they sit one behind the other, so only one can start something-- that one is usually Mr F, who likes the back seat. I hope he doesn't like it just because it gives him the ability to lean forward and squeeze his brother's head for no reason, like he did on Saturday as we were shopping, but I fear that's his only reason.

Shopping with a stroller also gives you the appearance of a shoplifter-- I get to take stuff off the shelf and put it in the basket underneath the stroller, where I also have two plastic balls, a tiny construction worker, two sippy cups, a piece of my travel mug that the boys like to play with, and a sweatshirt. I always feel guilty as I put things from the shelf down into the basket, because I assume it looks like I'm shoplifting. So I cover my tracks and point out to hidden security cameras or other shoppers that I'm not stealing anything. I'll pick up, as I did Saturday, a wooden wall hanging with a barometer and thermometer, and put that in the stroller's bottom basket, and I loudly tell the Babies! what I'm doing.

"I'm going to buy this," I tell the Babies! (and security). "We'll just put that down here until we get to the cash register, where I'll take it out again and pay for it," I mention to them.

We were midway through the store where I was looking for hanging lamps when the crabbiness overtook the twins. First to go was Mr Bunches, who got upset about something, maybe the atmospheric pressure. It doesn't take much just after their nap. He began to grouse and complain, and that's a chain reaction moment, because whichever twin starts up first, the other one isn't far behind. They don't even have to know what is wrong -- just the fact that the brother is crying means something is wrong, and gets the second one upset.

That's what happened Saturday. Mr Bunches began complaining and fussing, and Mr F picked up on that and astutely realized that something must be horribly awry or Mr Bunches wouldn't be fussing. So Mr F began crying.

At that, Mr Bunches turned around, startled, and I could almost see what was going through his mind: What's upset Mr F so much? It must be terrible! So he began crying, harder, which then convinced Mr F that something terrible really was happening, and he began trying to get out of the stroller to take evasive action. When upset, Mr F has two options he pursues. The most common is that he heads for a secluded corner, where he will hunch over, yell at you, and sometimes turn upside down.

So I was in the middle of the store, with two screaming 2-year-olds, one of whom was trying desperately to extricate himself from the stroller through ever-more-elaborate contortions, and I did exactly what I always secretly wished other parents would do when that happens. I left.

Or I almost left. I was prevented from leaving because as I headed out of the store, as I was only ten feet from the front door, I looked down and saw that Mr F had only one shoe on.

That's his other option when upset. If he can't make it to a corner, Mr F throws his shoe.

That's the other way I know they're smart. Mr F didn't want to be shopping for hanging lamps just after getting up from his nap. So he taught me a lesson, throwing his shoe when I wasn't looking.

"Where's your shoe?" I whispered. God forbid I attract any attention at that point.

He just kept crying and trying to escape. I checked the stroller bottom, but it wasn't there. I scanned the immediate area, but it wasn't around there.

I seriously considered just heading out without the shoe. I gave serious thought, for 0.1 seconds, to just going home with only one shoe, but I didn't know what I'd tell Sweetie, who is still a little suspicious about those marshmallow stains. Sweetie would point out to me that she'd never had them lose a shoe on her watch, and that would put me behind in parenting.

So I began to roam around the store, retracing my steps, and scanning the floors and the racks and the shelves for a shoe, trying to figure out where Mr F had taken it off. I thought back in my mind: when was the last time I noticed him having a shoe on? The answer, truthfully, was never; I couldn't even recall putting his shoes on him before we left; up until I noticed the missing shoe I'd given no thought to his shoes.

I kept looking, and tried to ignore the stares around me while using various calming techniques. I gave them my keys to play with -- hoping to God that I didn't find the shoe and lose the car keys, but it was a risk I had to take. I kept saying "Shhh... It's all right. We're almost done." I interspersed that with "Where is your shoe?" in case maybe they could talk, and they'd suddenly decide to just answer me.

I also resorted again to mock conversation designed to be overheard by store workers, fellow shoppers, and any child welfare authorities who would take a dim view of a dad deciding to go on shopping -- and shopping in an unusually attentive way, getting down to look under shelves -- while his children shrieked as though they were being electrocuted.

"We're almost done," I told everyone, in a calm whisper. "We'll just get your shoe and go. Daddy's not shopping anymore. We're just looking for your shoe. Daddy's all done with his stuff. We just need your shoe."

On the second lap through the store, I found the shoe wedged under a rack of women's slacks. When I found it, they stopped crying. They became good enough for me to calmly go up to the register, acting like I didn't have a couple of twins sniffling hoarsely in the stroller, and like I hadn't just spent fifteen minutes frantically pushing aside merchandise and getting down on my hands and knees while pushing those Babies! around the store, and calmly pay for the barometer/thermometer -- while also holding both of Mr F's shoes, which I didn't let go of until we were in the car.

So you see? I'm not a bad person and I'm not a bad parent. If you were in that store, you no doubt assumed that I was a horrible person, but maybe you shouldn't just jump to assumptions and judge books by their covers and all that. After reading all this, I hope that the next time you see someone pushing some screaming kids around a store, you stop them and ask if they need a little help.

Because I do. I really do.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Tonight, Mr F's homework was practicing writing his name.


He tried to get out of it by eating the crayon.

Which resulted in my saying this:

"Spit it out.  Out.  Spit it out. Fine. You know what? Crayons aren't poisonous and either way you have to do homework."